The myths and realities of the wage gap

A sign in the A building stairwell calling for equal pay for women. THE AZTEC/VICTORIA RAMIREZ.
A sign in the A building stairwell calling for equal pay for women. THE AZTEC/VICTORIA RAMIREZ.

The sign can be seen when walking up the A-building stairwell, informing students that August 24 is Women’s Equity Day. With large, bold letters, the sign claims that women only earn 77% of what men earn in the United States and urges a call to action to close the gender wage gap. In recent years, this perceived difference between female and male earnings has been near the forefront of political discussion. Many prominent figures, from Patricia Arquette in her Oscar-winning speech to the President during his State of the Union address, have denounced wage inequality and have touted the 77% figure.

The issue has become a well-known topic among the general public and even pervaded into high school. Twenty Mark Keppel seniors were recently asked whether they agreed with the statement, “In the U.S., women, as a whole, earn less money than men for doing the same jobs with the same experience and qualifications.” 7 out of 10 Keppel boys and 9 out of 10 Keppel girls agreed with the statement. Those who agreed were subsequently asked how many cents they believed a woman earned for every dollar a man earned. The average response was around 73 cents.

Though the majority of people–though not all–do agree there is a wage gap in America, there is disagreement on the specifics. Do women actually earn only 77% of what men earn and what factors account for this disparity? Is there such blatant sexism in the workplace that employers can get away with paying women so much less than their male counterparts?  What is the true cause of wage inequality, and, if it does truly exist, how can it be remedied?

Theoretically, there should be no difference between male and female wages in this country. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which was signed into law by then-president John F. Kennedy. The law, in essence, makes wage discrimination based on gender illegal. If an employer is paying a women less than a male co-worker, she can report it. This disallows outright sexist wage policies by businesses.

If federal law has made the practice of giving women unequal pay illegal, then what accounts for the 23% gap between women’s and men’s earnings? Are employers still blatantly discriminating against female workers? Is this number even accurate? The actual wage gap in America is not yet settled on. The 77% figure is reached by comparing the median annual earnings of all women to the median annual earnings of all men. When comparing weekly earnings, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics did, women are found to earn around 81-82% of what men earn. However, both of these numbers are comparing median earnings, meaning that they compare the average earnings of all women in all professional fields and careers against those of all men in all professional fields and careers. Therefore, such data can be misleading when determining whether there is a pay gap.

Men and women tend to choose different career paths. For instance, according to, men make up about 90% of software developers, construction workers/project managers, and computer systems administrators. Comparatively, women make up about 90% of nurses, elementary school teachers, and human resources administrators. The median annual pay for the first three professions is about $89,000 as of 2015; the median annual pay for the latter three is $55,000. These are just three examples, but compared to women, men have been found be more likely to choose higher-risk jobs, higher-paying jobs, and more specialized jobs. Men are also overrepresented in STEM-related professions, especially engineering and computer sciences, which tend to have higher annual salaries. Finally, men tend to work more hours on average than women do, 8.75 hours per day compared to women’s 8.01, a 9% difference. Other factors may also contribute to the gap, such as women taking more unpaid leave and being less involved in unions.

When comparing women’s and men’s earnings and accounting for controllable variables such as job type, position, total hours worked, and more, the Department of Labor found in a 2009 study that the actual pay gap between women and men is between 4.8% and 7.1%. This is a much smaller figure than the 23% gap purported by most mainstream outlets, but it does suggest there may be possible discrimination causing the still-existent gap. A 2010 study also found that women aged 22 to 30 also have a higher average salary than men of the same age by 8% but then earn progressively less than same-aged men as they grow older, which also plays into the existing wage gap. Some economists attribute this to women being more hesitant to ask for higher wages or promotions and others cite a tendency of bosses to promote male workers over females. Additionally, women tend to have less turnover rates than men do, meaning they do not seek as many new job opportunities, which companies often exploit by paying these workers less.

The answer to whether the gender wage gap in America exists? Yes, it does, but not in the way most people think. The difference in male earnings and female earnings, when all variables are accounted for, is small but it’s still there. However, the fix for this is not as clear-cut as calling for equal pay nor can any currently-proposed legislation provide a magical solution. In fact, there have recently been efforts by Congress to pass an amendment to the Equal Pay, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is aimed at narrowing the gender wage gap. The act’s premise that the wage gap is due to employer discrimination, however, has led to criticism and was a factor in it not being passed by the Senate in 2014. The median wage gap may narrow progressively as more women enter male-dominated professions and vice-versa. Achieving true gender pay equality, however, will require a more widespread change in the way people see this issue and changes in, among others, the implementation of better child care/paid maternity and paternity leave, greater parity among the genders in educational fields, and a concerted effort to end occupational gender segregation.


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